A Hymn before Dying

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Dig down deep in the well of your soul
till you find that the well’s run dry
Stretch your wings, cut the strings,
and hope dead birds can fly
We’ve all tapped out of an empty ring
at the height of an ongoing battle
and we can’t even choke; the only sound in our throats
a hollow and meaningless rattle

Nobody’s right until everybody’s wrong
You can’t write these lyrics if you already know the song
When those who believe don’t really belong
It won’t be long till we’re gone.

They say they want our words, our voices,
these referees of our silence
In the name of peace they command that we cease
with threats of respectable violence
Lest we speak, lest we compromise all,
they offer up stairs to the top of the wall
only to pull out the rug from our feet,
handing out blame as we fall

Nobody’s right until everybody’s wrong
You can’t write these lyrics if you already know the song
When those who believe don’t really belong
It won’t be long till we’re gone.

Whatever ghosts we fear the most,
they pale next to the shadow
of freedom offered by those who have it
to those whose fields lie fallow

‘Cause nobody’s right until everybody’s wrong
You can’t write these lyrics if you already know the song
When those who believe don’t really belong
It won’t be long till we’re gone.

Sins of My Fathers

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Without ash to rise from, a phoenix would just be a bird getting up.

– Schmidt

I want to talk about race, and gender, and some of the other things I’m not supposed to talk about because I’m white and male. Which characteristics I of course chose for myself when the gene genies contacted me for that traditional prenatal identity consultation. This was after the prenatal press conference in which I explicitly endorsed all the injustices committed by all the white males before me, throughout history.

I have news for you: Hogwarts is not real, and there is no such thing as a Sorting Hat. I was born, and I have acted (for better and for worse) on my own account and no one else’s; my impact as a person can be judged fairly only by that rubric.

But that is not the rubric against which I find myself measured. I am told that, regardless of who I am or what I have done, I am complicit in a multitude of previous sins. I am presumed guilty, and am placed beyond proof of innocence. And anything I say can and will be used against me in the court of public opinion.

I’m told that men shouldn’t be involved in the gender debate, that they should just listen quietly and be educated. Fair enough: quiet listening is necessary to education, and speech before learning leads only to Fox and Friends. But there is a time for quiet listening, and there is a time for taking what one has learned and getting into the conversation, respectfully but actively. Otherwise, there isn’t much point in learning in the first place.

I’m told that Black Lives Matter. And they most certainly do. But I’m also told that this is a claim that must exist in isolation; that to suggest, as a member of the white community, that my life also matters, that indeed all lives matter, is an act of imperialism and violence. I am told by those speaking out for their own worth and meaning as people that if I do the same, I am worthless and meaningless. Meanwhile, on many levels, the whole argument misses its own point, given that we are prosecuting it as a multitude of refugees stands helpless and homeless at our borders, hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens stand helpless and homeless on our street corners, and all the rest of us stand idly by demanding more attention for ourselves.

I refuse to accept this. I will not play this game nor will I acquiesce to these rules, any more than anyone should give in to the arbitrariness of socially-imposed classes and categorizations. Justice is never about taking dominance away from one voice and giving it exclusively to another. Justice can only come about by way of dialogue; it must involve both the wronged and the perceived wrong-er.

The debate over feminism cannot thrive if it is framed in a such a way as to intentionally alienate or shut out the male voice, not because women are incapable of solving their own problems, but because men are a fact, unfortunate though it may be. We exist; we are everywhere. And if we’re the problem, then we have to be a part of the solution. Otherwise, you’re repairing the roof by tearing down a wall.

Black lives matter. White lives matter. Middle Eastern lives matter. Unborn life matters. Life matters. Wherever it is found, behind whatever sort of face it hides. This is the underlying problem: we think that in order for one group to matter, another has to matter less. This misconception of meaning has provided the framework for every violent human arrangement in history, from slavery to the Cold War to the War on Terror. Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter is but one more example of this false dichotomy. If we are to reach a point at which either black or white lives truly do matter, then it must be in tandem with one another, and alongside all other life. This is a zero sum issue: either all lives matter, or none of them do.

Recently, I read the following quote by radical feminist Alicen Grey:

It’s painful when I hear/see quotes from men, waxing poetic about how violent and inhumane “we” “humans” are “to each other”. When historically and globally, males account for the vast, vast majority of violence. Mostly against women. I used to wonder, how could these men – fancying themselves profound and in-on Truth – possibly call “humans” violent when they are technically the source? But I guess that’s what happens when the only people you consider humans are other men.

In other words, it doesn’t matter what I say, or in how many positive ways I contribute to the quest for social justice, gender and racial equality, or anything else. I am, in the most literal of senses, worth-less, beyond any possibility of betterment, trapped in the web of my original sin: the penis. I am generational evil incarnate. Regardless of my individual character, I am defined by my class and, consequently, disenfranchised. I am refused the right to contribute on the presumption that anything I say is by definition suspect. I am barred, not just from the conversations surrounding gender and racial issues, but from any conversation at all. How’s that for violent, imperialistic speech?

I hear her, and I appreciate (if I cannot fully understand) the pain that animates her words. Women have been sorely mistreated by men, African Americans have been devalued by white America, and ethnic minorities the world over have been abused and murdered by majorities the world over, for far too long. But anger, while a powerful and constructive tool, becomes merely destructive when wielded as a weapon. This may be temporarily satisfying, but it is not ultimately productive. Alienation as a response to alienation only creates greater alienation.

I will not apologize for things I did not do and have not done. No one should have to. What I can (and will) do is my best with my life to ensure that the unjust actions and words of my predecessors and contemporaries are, through my own actions and words, to some measure counteracted. I will honor, respect, and speak out for the rights of women, African Americans, and any others to whom they have been denied, and I will fight alongside anyone (Alicen Grey included) who is interested in bringing about a more just social order for all people. I may not move mountains, but I’ll go down swinging. I will be your ally.

Assuming, that is, that you’ll let me…

Who We Aren’t

Arco_das_Cataratas(Photo by Newordertemple)

The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times.

– Justice Anthony M. Kennedy

In his dissent in Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark decision that struck down bans on same-sex marriage throughout the fifty states, Chief Justice John Roberts asked:

As a result, the Court invalidates the marriage laws of more than half the States and orders the transformation of a social institution that has formed the basis of human society for millennia, for the Kalahari Bushmen and the Han Chinese, the Carthaginians and the Aztecs. Just who do we think we are?

In all honesty, I’m not always sure who we are as a nation, but I think I can say with some confidence who we are not:

We are not Han Chinese, or Kalahari Bushmen, or the Carthaginians. And, unless at some point we’ve performed a ritual human sacrifice on the White House lawn, we are definitely not the Aztecs. I’d like to think we’ve made just a little progress since then. Even if one rejects the idea of biological evolution, no one who’s read a history book (outside of Texas) can possibly deny the reality of social evolution. We are not who we once were. And this is a great good.

We are not even the nation we were a week and a half ago. As President Obama so eloquently noted in his eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, the events that unfolded in Charleston have had an effect on us as a people that no one, from the shooter to the Fox pundits to society at large, saw coming: we have stumbled upon (or been thrust rudely into) introspection, a quality sorely lacking of late in our public discourse. We have perhaps for the first time in a very long time stopped to consider the feelings of others. When the son of Strom Thurmond advocates the demotion of the Confederate flag, you know a corner’s been turned.

In this groundswell of respect for others (fleeting as it may be), the Obergefell decision seems only fitting. Perhaps we are finally getting it through our collective head that our LGBTQ compatriots are not aberrations, not threats to the social order, not “less than” anything or anyone. That instead, they are just like us: people in pursuit of happiness, people in possession of human dignity, people entitled to all the rights and liberty the rest of us expect to wake up to in the morning. Perhaps we’ve finally realized that the worship of God doesn’t require judgment of others, or that these men and women simply want a share in our society, not to destroy it. Perhaps; perhaps not…

Here, though, is where the rubber meets the road. Neither the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, or the Civil Rights Act a century later, signaled the end of the racist streak that runs throughout our history as a nation. Charleston proved that. Legislation and/or court decisions get us only so far. And they are what truly show us who we are as a society, because they take what once was adherence to the law (call it “plausible deniability”) and transform it into circumvention of the law. Alleged innocence flies out the window: we’ve now reached the stage of egregious (and generally creatively underhanded) denial of our fellow citizens’ rights.

Before June 26, 2015, we could say that our attitude, our approach to the issue of LGBT equality, was about “the letter of the law,” about what’s written down on the hallowed papers and documents of our land. We could blame the Founders, pin it on the courts, whatever. Now, today, that ship has sailed: now it’s all about what lives in our hearts and minds, as individuals, as citizens, as human beings. Nooses on trees come from nooses in minds; hateful speech flows from hateful hearts. Who do we think we are? We are what we say and do.

Justice Kennedy foresaw the coming storm in the majority opinion: “Outlaw to outcast may be a step forward, but it does not achieve the full promise of liberty.” Anyone familiar with Jim Crow feels the truth of those words, some of us in ways the rest of us will never quite understand. And the choice, now, is ours: who do we think we are?

If we take Justice Roberts’ words as binding, it would seem we are who we ever have been, that we cannot change, that we cannot grow as a people and a society. We must always think as we have thought before; we must always plumb the depths behind rather than plotting out the course ahead. And that’s a dangerous frame of mind: if we think we are who we used to be, we’ll never realize who we might become.

The real question, as we move forward, is this: Who are we going to be, now that we’re beginning to understand what it means to be who we are?

Too Soon?

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Have I said
too much? The rush
to judgment withheld;
the Gavel never fell; and I…

I, one eye on hell and
one on heaven, and even then
schizophrenic: where to look? what
to see? Only me

and my shadow (that’s
You). A shoe that drops
is a shoe somebody threw
into whatever stew is boiling
today…but
to say it never happened…

Take
my plate away

 

Toys Don’t Kill People. People with Toys Kill People.

You’ll shoot your eye out!

– Mother Parker

As I was getting ready to leave for work this morning, I was accosted by my television, which told me that Uncle Sam wants me to HAVE A GUN!

This commercial, produced by a local Waco store called (I’m not making this up) Fun Guns, has apparently launched a campaign that is in some way tax refund-related. Thus the Uncle Sam reference. But it isn’t the mechanics of the thing that concerns me. It’s the message it sends about guns and the part they play in American society.

Anytime we attempt to start a conversation about gun control, everything goes sideways. You’ve all had this discussion, from one side or the other: Either A) the government wants to take our guns so we can’t defend ourselves when they come for us, or B) if the government takes my guns, I won’t be able to defend my family from the bad guys. In both cases, the argument boils down to one idea: protection.

I call bullshit.

The store’s name (Fun Guns) is revealing enough. But the commercial’s tagline wraps everything up in a nice, neat, terrifying little bow. Uncle Sam wants you to “get you some!” To the sound of automatic weapons fire.

Come on, folks! All I’m asking for is a little rhetorical honesty. These people don’t want protection. They want toys.

This attitude toward firearms is not manly. It’s moronic. Let’s allow that guns are necessary tools, and that hunting and even home defense are legitimate reasons for owning them. Even if that is the case, in what universe is it remotely responsible to treat potentially deadly objects in the same way one might treat a frozen daiquiri on Bourbon Street during spring break?

It’s not a matter of gun control; it’s a matter of self-control. I find it highly suggestive that even as we demand parental guidance stickers on violent video games, we hawk real-life weapons as if they were stocking-stuffers. By all means, teach little Sally to hunt. But does the pink bedazzled deer rifle really send the message you’re after?

Remember, folks: It’s all fun and games until somebody shoots his eye out…

Definitions

Between the lines,
Meeting of minds. Reading
The signs, mixing the signals:
Copies of originals, never exact.

Society’s act, the playwright’s
Mistake with no second take, no
Chance to correct the
Misapprehension, to dull the
Contention that misleads
Intention. Beginnings of wars to
Audible snores; what more can a tree
Say of its roots?

To be (who are we?) set
Free from confusion. Fusion,
Not fission: the illusion of false
Definition put down, set aside. And
All
That is left
Is the ride. A path
Not on maps, in the
Mind; no lines to
Divide, no limiting
Pride behind which to hide
The truth of Inside.

How Much Do You Really Want To Know? (Redux)

Recently, I wrote a piece on that paragon of insincerity, the “How are you?” routine. I received a number of different responses, ranging from the “well said” to the “seek help” ends of the spectrum. I’ve even been told that, emotionally disturbed as I apparently am, it’s a good thing I don’t want kids, ’cause God knows what lunacy I might pass on to them if I did. Yes, it seems that my imbalance may well be contagious…

I fear, consequently, that some clarification is in order.

My purpose in writing the bit in question was not to elicit sympathy from the teeming masses. It was not a cry for attention. I was not out to be patted on the head and clucked at in a soothing manner. I am not in need of a tender rendition of “Soft Kitty,” or anything at all like that, anymore than anyone else. (Although, to those who did express encouragement or support, I extend many sincere thanks.)

Yes, I did use myself as an example, but that is simply because my own mind is the only one I can come anywhere close to actually knowing. The things I shared were the scary little tidbits I rarely allow out of their cages because there’s a very good chance that if I do, they will turn on me and swallow me whole. We all have them, and we all keep them hidden. Because, after all, who wants a visit from the white lab coats? Who wants to be that box in the far corner of the moving van that nobody touches, because it’s marked “Fragile” and looks like it’s two prods from falling apart?

My goal was not to highlight my own issues; it was to point out that this tendency toward “stuffing,” as they call it, is very much a part of the unspoken social contract by which we regulate our lives in community. It is strong in all of us, all the time. It fools us into thinking we’re healthy and strong, when, by very virtue of accepting the status quo of silence, we are rendered sickly and weak. We are less than we can be because we share less than all of our selves.

But it goes even further than that: Our deathly fear of interpersonal honesty often causes us to forget how to be honest even with ourselves. We don’t ask life’s important questions because we’re afraid to admit their legitimacy. We don’t shine our inner flashlights into that particular nook or cranny because that’s where the real shadows are, and they’re best left alone. Like children, we pull the covers up over our heads in the desperate hope that what we can’t see can’t hurt us. If we stay still, maybe the lions will go away.

The range of responses I’ve received since my original post shows that, out of practice as we are, not only do we often not know how to be honest, we also often have no clue how to deal with honesty when it comes our way. Suddenly, we’re missionaries stuck on Bourbon Street: we will snap our own necks trying to look anywhere but at the peepshow in progress. Which is an apt metaphor because, as it is understood, the act of revealing one’s true self–pain, problems, and all–is tantamount to removing one’s clothing in public. We become spectacle at best, public nuisance at worst. And there’s a good chance we’ll be taken into custody and tossed in a cage somewhere, if not for our own good, then at least so no one else has to deal with us anymore.

I come out of the Christian tradition which is, if anything, more coercive than society at large in the vow of silence it enforces among its adherents. Because, you see, things can’t be wrong without the entire foundation of the tradition collapsing around itself. Things can go wrong, mind you; but even then they cannot be wrong, since everything happens according to divine plan. That being the case, any acknowledgment of dismay is transmogrified into “whining” or “complaining” or, worse still, “questioning the will of God.” And how dare we do that?

In this scheme of things, honesty becomes not only difficult but downright suspect. Perhaps your faith is weak, Grasshopper. The Force is not strong in this one. Suddenly all interpersonal communication turns into a Twila Paris song (which, like much CCM material, seems on the surface deep and meaningful, but turns out on closer inspection to actually say little or nothing). And all of this is designed, not to provide a solution to the problem at hand, but to serve as a distraction from it.

In this sense, at least, Karl Marx was right: Religion is the opium of the people, and the supposed heart of a heartless world. We are, all of us, caught up in what is broadly termed “the human condition,” and religion (in this case, Christianity) is often set up as the only viable outlet, the only feasible response to a situation beyond our control. We can’t stop this craziness; surely there’s Someone out there who can. In seeing through the pretensions of religious thought, Marx also understood that we have another option. What is structural can be demolished and redesigned, rebuilt. It can be replaced. His genius lay not necessarily in his specific solution–socialism–but in his general point: the true solution to the human condition is a reimagining of community. We have, if nothing else, each other. It is not religion, but we, who are the true heart of a heartless world.

We all have baggage, a nice array of Samsonite we carry with us as we move from experience to experience, cradle to grave. Life is about what we do with those pieces of luggage: we can conceal them in our closets, locked and impenetrable, or we can open them, lay out the contents, and deal with the jumble. Life is about what we do with where we’ve come from. But in order to do this, we need to be free to air all that dirty laundry conventional wisdom encourages us to pretend we don’t have; we need to be free to strip our selves bare for all to see, to be the broken toys we all become, to one degree or another, as life plays with us through the years. We need the freedom to be weak, because in vulnerability we will find strength, if not in the eyes of others, at least in our own.

Weakness lies not in admitting the painful nature of life; weakness lies in pretending we are strong; weakness lies in not having the courage to face our pain head-on. Life is not just a flesh-wound. It is a gaping, bleeding, oozing GSW to the chest, and we need each other like an assault victim needs a paramedic. So, instead of hiding our struggles and whispering them at the sky, we need to take a look at our fellow travelers (I mean this not as a political label, but as a genetic one). We need to talk to one another, freely and openly, and listen to one another in the same way.

Perhaps this is pie in the sky, but it has to beat the idea that there actually is pie in the sky, and nowhere else…